What would Hector, the outsize teacher who leads The History Boys, say about all these flashy musicals? Would he be faintly dismissive or genially approving? It’s a credit to Alan Bennett that his central character can be imagined this way, wholly independent of the play in which he appears. Hounded by quantifiers and corner-cutters, Hector is a humanist on the run—or the wobble, at least. Richard Griffiths plays him with ruddy good humor, amiable sensitivity, and a voluminous three-piece suit—he could be Denny Hastert, if Hastert were utterly different, in every way but the physical, from the man he is.
In this story about English prep-school boys being torn between opposing teachers, views of history, and outlooks on life, Bennett wears his CV on his sleeve. The funny parts issue from the madcap Beyond the Fringe portions of Bennett’s brain; the quiet interiors come from the dramatist who wrote the lovely solo portraits in Talking Heads. Though Bennett skimps on the story’s grief, and leans too heavily on his co-author, Bartlett, and his book of quotations, the play is never less than smart and compelling. (It helps that Nicholas Hytner has drawn richly quirky performances from a top-notch ensemble.) In a healthier Broadway, maybe these compact virtues wouldn’t seem as extraordinary as some have claimed. But with the vampires biting nightly, I’ll take it.